Jeff Donaldson: Dig
Jeff Donaldson: Dig, the artist’s first museum retrospective, explores Donaldson’s four decade career. Spanning his 1960s-era activist roots in Chicago to his influence on generations of artists as a professor at Howard University and vice president of the Barnes Foundation, this major exhibition presents new scholarship and features works never before seen in public. For the first time, Dig presents Donaldson’s early works alongside his lesser known paintings from the 1980s and 1990s.
Stone Singer Jeff Donaldson, 1996–1999, acrylic oncanvas, 66 x 36”, Private collection, Courtesy of Kravets Wehby Gallery, New York
Majorities Jeff Donaldson, 1977, mixed media, 44 x 36”, Private collection, Courtesy of Kravets Wehby Gallery, New York
In 1968, Donaldson co-founded the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA). Formed in Chicago, AfriCOBRA was born of political and social unrest, in an art world privileging white artists and audiences. AfriCOBRA sought to create art that was not only politically engaged but celebrated contemporary Black culture and appealed specifically to Black audiences.
Donaldson’s paintings, prints, and mixed media works combine energetic colors, intricate patterns, and African iconography to celebrate the history of African art and the roots of Black culture. This exhibition reflects on Donaldson’s belief in an artist’s responsibility to create work that is both socially relevant and visually striking.
Jeff Donaldson: Dig includes important AfriCOBRA memorabilia along with iconic examples of Donaldson’s early work recognized for its high energy “coolade” palette.The psychedelic associations of Donaldson’s style tapped into the countercultural zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s. In Majorities, a mixed media work from 1977, two female figures dominate the symmetrical composition. Their faces are obscured by halo-like circles rimmed with tiny renderings of flags from countries around the world. A winged scarab appears in the lower center of the work, representing the Egyptian god Khepri, who was associated with creation, regeneration, and eternal existence.
Stone Singer, an acrylic painting on canvas from1996–1999, exemplifies the artist’s late work and his keen interest in music. The composition features a central female figure in a white dress against a background of vivid colors and repeating shapes. Her eyes and nose are covered with stripes, placing emphasis on her mouth, as though depicted mid-song.
What We Cannot See Allison Zuckerman, 2018, acrylic and archival CMYK ink on canvas, 68 x 84”, Courtesy of the artist and Kravets Wehby Gallery, New York
Sources of creative inspiration for artists, muses throughout art history have been portrayed as sensual playthings for male artists—often depicted nude, in prone, passive positions and situated in romanticized settings. Allison Zuckerman turns those conventions upside down, repurposing muses to cut right to the uncomfortable and sometimes painful truths of women’s existence. She plunders Western art history, dismantling bodies and piecing together new ones that expose vulnerability and imperfection. Amalgams of body parts and clothing from artists [all male] throughout history and set against background elements taken from artists as well as pop culture imagery, Zuckerman’s figures emerge unruly, awkwardly proportioned, even glitchy. But their overwhelming presence commands attention and space. An arsenal of bluebirds, fruit, cakes, teardrops, flowers, flags and scrolling banners meanwhile form a protective force field around them.
Pirate and Muse features new paintings and sculptures that evidence the artist’s embrace of the label “pirate”—Zuckerman brazenly—and proudly—steals from other artists. A Picasso head, Lucas Cranach torso, Cezanne fruit, Lichtenstein brushstrokes, and Disney bluebirds comingle to create a grotesque, unapologetic encapsulation of the absurdly submissive way that female figures have been depicted throughout art history. Zuckerman sees herself as swooping in to rescue and empower these figures. She is proposing a way forward that is more honest, more embracing of the plurality of women’s identities. She states that her work represents a “marginalized perspective that’s been cast aside—one that’s emotional, unsure, and vulnerable yet powerful in the conviction of belonging in the world.”
All is Well Allison Zuckerman, 2018, acrylic and archival CMYK ink on canvas, 60 x 80”, Courtesy of the artist and Kravets Wehby Gallery, New York
Technology and social media figure prominently in Zuckerman’s work. She composes her paintings digitally, grabbing body parts, accessories, and background elements from online sources, then printing the compositions on canvas and painting on the surface.The artist likens her process to the way people carefully curate the identities they present on social media. Cobbled together from disparate sources, her figures are performances of people that when examined closely—like her cut-out sculptures—only exist in a flattened reality. Meanwhile, pixelated areas censor arbitrary sections of landscape, a portion of an arm or an innocent bird. The apparent random pixelation gives the impression that the painting is still resolving itself. Which is exactly the point.
Philosophers and Bather Allison Zuckerman, 2018, acrylic and archival CMYK ink on canvas, 84 x 71 1/2”, Courtesy of the artist and Kravets Wehby Gallery, New York